How Facebook is redefining mobile app discovery

Facebook launched two game-changing features for mobile app developers this week: App Center and mobile-only Sponsored Stories.

App Center’s “send to mobile” button is an efficient way to get users to download a mobile app after learning about it on a desktop, and Sponsored Stories offer unparalleled targeting options for advertising on mobile devices. These things, combined with Facebook single sign-on and Open Graph, give developers important new channels for growing their mobile apps. By expanding these capabilities and giving developers better ways to track how Facebook impressions lead to downloads — maybe even working with Apple directly — the social network could prove itself as an indispensable component of all mobile applications.

Facebook is already a growing source of mobile app discovery, driving users to the Apple App Store more than 83 million times in May. Now with App Center, Facebook has organized applications by ranking and categories to make it easier for users to find applications they might like. Most importantly, users can find an app on the desktop App Center and send a link to their mobile phone. Users will almost instantly receive a push notification that takes them to the appropriate mobile app store to download the app. Getting users from the desktop to a mobile device can be cumbersome. Sometimes developers ask users for their phone number or email address to send them a link. Some have even tried QR codes. But with Facebook, the process is seamless. If the feature gains traction in App Center, we could imagine Facebook creating a plugin that would allow developers to put a “send to mobile” button on their websites.

The social network also introduced mobile-only Sponsored Stories this week. Previously, there was no way to run a Facebook ad campaign that only appeared on users’ phones and not on the desktop site. Now, developers can benefit from Facebook’s demographic- and interest-based targeting options and promote their apps directly in users’ mobile News Feeds.

Sponsored Stories work differently than traditional ads in that advertisers pay to promote organic activity to a user’s friends. For example, after someone uses a mobile app, their Facebook friends will see a story that says “[Your friend] used [this app]” or “[Your friend] played [this game].” If an app integrates Open Graph to include specific actions like “completed a quest,” “listened to a playlist” or “went on a run,” a developer could pay to promote those stories, too. Clicking on those stories from the mobile feed will take users to a download page. See the photo to the right for an example of the type of mobile app story that could be sponsored.

Now what Facebook needs to do is close the loop between when a user discovers an app on the social network and when they download and use it. Currently, there’s no clear way for a developer to know how exactly many mobile downloads were driven by Facebook. The company could one day provide information about how many users who clicked on an app from News Feed or App Center ultimately authorized permissions for that app. This could be especially useful considering Apple’s moves away from Unique Device IDs (UDIDs) to track and identify users. There have been some rumors that Facebook and Apple are working together on an iOS integration that could include Like buttons in the App Store. We could imagine even deeper integration that further reduces the number of steps to download an app and connect it with a user’s Facebook account.

The Wall Street Journal today claims Apple plans to release a new way for mobile app developers to track who uses their software. Though it made no specific mention of Facebook, the story’s unidentified sources say the company is likely to rely on a sequence of numbers that isn’t tied to a specific device. If this turns out to be a Facebook ID, it would be a very strategic alliance against the companies’ common enemy: Google. Apple doesn’t want to be a social network, and despite rumors of a Facebook phone, Facebook probably doesn’t want to be a hardware company. Instead, it is positioning itself as a “growth engine,” as Facebook product manager Matt Wyndowe and others said at the App Center launch event in San Francisco on Thursday.

Even if an Apple partnership doesn’t materialize, Facebook’s “send to phone” button and Sponsored Stories are already powerful new components of that engine, as more mobile developers will likely discover over the next few months.